my mom and first communion

I miss my mom.

Like, really, really, REALLY miss her.

Of course, I think of her and miss her every day, but today it is different.

Today, Brian is making his First Holy Communion.

I have been looking forward to and dreading this day for weeks.

I have felt edgy and unfocused, my stomach has been tied up in knots.

This morning, I walked into our family room, just like I did on Emma and Kate’s first communion days. Only, unlike those mornings, this time, the room is empty.

Quiet.

Each of those mornings, when I went to sit in “my spot” on the sofa and turn on ABC news, my mom was already sitting in my spot, the television changed to NBC.

“Good morning, Baby,” she looked up at me and smiled. Her face had changed so much, the scleroderma had really taken its toll.

I said, “Good morning” back; however, I was not sincere. I was more annoyed that my morning ritual had been altered. I’d have to walk a whole two extra feet to sit down on the couch and listen to a different newscaster.

Why wasn’t I more focused on the journey she made to be here, in my family room, the day of our children’s special occasion? How difficult it was for her to pack for the trip? To make her way to the car? To sit in the car all of those hours from Chicago to Fairfield?

No. I was more worried about my morning routine being slightly changed and the day ahead.

I knew how sick she was…you could see how sick she was, how people looked at her when we pushed her into the church in the wheelchair. She was withering away, her face almost mask-like, her skin gray.

Somehow, it was easier for me to just revert back to my younger, adolescent jerk-self, when all I did was walk around with a gigantic chip on my shoulder and talk back to my mom, than it was to just sit with her.

It hurts to just sit…to just sit and be with the pain.

The morning after Kate’s first communion, when I scrolled through pictures, I realized with a panic that I deleted the only picture of my mom with Kate because I didn’t like the way I looked. We didn’t have a single picture with my mom and Kate in her dress.

“Kate, would you pleeeeease put your dress back on?” I pleaded.

Sitting at the bottom of the stairs, her arms folded across her chest, tears in her eyes, she cried, “Please don’t make me put that thing back on! I can’t stand that dress. Please! No!”

I tried reasoning with her, “We don’t know how much longer we have with Grandma. Please. She’s really sick. I don’t have any pictures of the two of you together in your dress. Please, honey. You can take it off right after the picture.”

Even as I said those words, I didn’t believe it…

My mom will always be here.

It was those words that convinced Kate, she said, “Okay” and walked up the stairs to change.

Minutes later, she walked into the family room in her crumpled dress and sat next to my mom. I grabbed the wilted floral headpiece and planted it on Kate’s head, her bedhead hair soft and curly around her face.

I snapped the picture.

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Mom complained that she didn’t like the picture because her robe looked like a straight-jacket.

I posted it anyway.

A few hours later, my mom left.

As they pulled away from our house, her head barely clearing the passenger-side window, she locked eyes with me. I could see she was crying. I started crying too.

Did she know?

Did I know?

One month later, she was gone.

That was three years ago.

I am worried I will cry during mass this morning. The songs, all of those familiar songs, from my childhood are now a part of my own children’s history.

I used to get so annoyed with my mom at church. She sang louder than anyone. It wasn’t only that she was loud…it was also more like opera singing with a head-bob. It was seriously embarrassing.

She couldn’t sing toward the end because the disease started hardening her lungs…it was hard enough to just breathe.

I will take some deep breaths today and think of her.

I will stand behind our son as he receives this sacrament.

I believe.

Maybe I will sing really loudly this morning too.

I miss my mom.

utopia

utopia
google images

On September 10, 2009, The Oprah Show hosted the Black Eyed Peas to kick-off her talk show’s 24th season. Unbeknownst to Oprah, the audience of 20,000 people had gathered hours before the live show to rehearse a carefully choreographed flash mob as a surprise to her.

When the Black Eyed Peas started singing “I Gotta Feeling,” Oprah, bouncing up and down, held out an iPhone and recorded the crowd. It was an unusual scene – the only person dancing to the music, besides Oprah and the Black Eyed Peas – was ONE brightly dressed and overly-enthusiastic woman in the front row. The rest of the people in the audience just stood there. Oprah kept dancing and recording.

And, that’s when it happened. Slowly, and with extreme precision, small clusters of people in the crowd began to join in the dancing. This continued until it reached ALL 20,000 audience members. When the cameras up above panned down on the scene, it literally looked like a wave. A massive, pulsating wave. Balancing Brian on my hip and bouncing along to the music, I couldn’t believe what I was watching from my living room. I quickly grabbed the remote and DVR’d the show.

After the flash mob, several audience members were interviewed about their experience. One man commented that he had never ever felt that kind of energy, that kind of JOY before in his life. He said it felt like Utopia, a perfect world where everyone worked together in beautiful harmony. With tears in his eyes, he commented, “This must be what heaven feels like.”

I swear my kids and I must have watched and danced along with that flash mob a hundred times. It really did feel like heaven…

On September 26, 2016, seven years after Oprah’s flash mob, I was lucky enough to experience another one of those Utopian moments at an assembly at our children’s school. It was a much smaller crowd than Oprah’s audience, but impressive nonetheless.

Brian Williams from Think Kindness gathered the students together to demonstrate the power of ONE and “paying it forward”. Without giving away too much, he created a “tidal wave” with hundreds of students and a simple gesture. Just like watching that Oprah episode, witnessing that kind of energy made my heart swell (even more so when two of the students came over to give me a hug too!). It was a great kick-off to this year’s kindness initiative. These kids WILL change the world one act of kindness at a time.

Seven years later. I gotta feeling that people sometimes look at me like that overly-enthusiastic (read: nutjob) woman dancing alone in a crowd of thousands. The good news…there are a lot of people joining me in this dance…this Utopia. :o)


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#268. Gave a compliment to a stranger.
#267. Gave a nice tip to delivery man.
#266. Took some political campaign materials from a solicitor.
#265. Paid for girl behind us at 16 Handles.
#264. Sent a card to a friend.
#263. Made a donation to an important cause.
#262. Served at 7am mass (it’s hard, but worth it!).
#261. Let someone in at traffic stop.
#260. Picked up a piece of garbage on playground.
#259. Helped a student with a class project (Missouri)
#258. Sent a note of encouragement to a wonderful friend.
#257. Shared some great laughs with a friend through new technology
#256. Wrote a thank you note.
#255. Made a donation for a special cause.
#254. Picked up garbage on stairs before class.
#253. Prepped for kindness project at kids’ school.
#252. Gave a $5 Starbucks card to barista to pay forward.
#251. Wrote a letter for TWNMLL
#250. Wrote a letter for TWNMLL
#249. Smiled and said good morning to a LOT of people i
#248. Wrote a thank you note to a friend.
#247. Spent several hours devising a creative plan to accommodate 53 applications for kindness initiative.
#246. Helped put back some chairs that had been moved around at the Duck Pond.
#245. Said “Bless You” while walking passed a stranger when he sneezed (he looked up surprised, smiled and said “Thank you!”)

#244. Kept my word (bike man).
#243. Smiled and said good morning to a stranger.

the anti-suicide squad

Over the last few weeks, I have cringed every single time I have seen a movie trailer, interview, promotional material or review for the recently released movie: Suicide Squad.

suicide squad
photo credit: google images

I’ll be honest, I really have no idea what the movie is about other than it seems to have some comic book villains and Will Smith is one of the stars. I love Will Smith and I’m sure the movie will do really well at the box office.

Maybe if I was familiar with these characters and the plot the title wouldn’t bother me so much.

Maybe…

Probably not though.

It’ll probably be one of those words that just really bothers me the rest of my life.

It has affected too many of our family members.

I will probably always cringe when I hear the word: suicide.

But, I won’t stop saying the word.

I won’t stop fighting or fundraising or learning or sharing or walking in an attempt to prevent suicide.

And, our team, our squad, is back again this year…

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Choosing Grace 2015

We are the Anti-Suicide Squad and we are BADASS.

We are Choosing Grace.


IMG_6948For more information on how you can join us in Chicago on October 15th and/or donate (we have a long way to reach our goal!), please click on this link: http://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.team&teamID=104761 or visit http://www.chicagowalk.org and enter “Choosing Grace” to find our team.


weekly rak up

#206. Sent a thank you to a friend to thank her for a very thoughtful and generous gift.
#205. Asked manager to turn down volume when everyone in the theater was plugging the ears from deafening sound. She was so nice about it and checked in on us afterwards.

church lady.

I am sitting in the middle of the cold hard pew minding my own business when the soloist begins singing the offertory song.

She sounds like an angel, and this particular song brings back so many memories of my childhood in this church, in this very same pew.

I look around me, a few of my friends’ parents and former choir member friends are here. It is all so familiar, yet different too. I look up to the front of the church, notice “AMDG” over the altar, and suddenly I cannot prevent the tears from springing into my eyes.

I don’t want to start crying in church.

I don’t want people to think there’s something wrong with me.

This feeling…it is difficult to put into words. There is sadness, but there is also joy…I guess some would call it a feeling of nostalgia.

I look up to prevent the tears from spilling onto my cheeks and I see this…

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Although there isn’t a caption underneath the image, I think it is the story of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet. I just had a “moment” with this profound story of forgiveness last month: a different kind of sunday school.

How can it be that I’ve been coming to this church for over forty-five years (45 years!) and I somehow never made the connection to this stained glass window? I smile because I feel my friend, Carrie’s presence behind the thin veil.

It’s interesting that this week’s lesson for my Positive Psychology class is also focused on religion, spirituality and its impact on well-being. The researchers have hypothesized that religion impacts mental and physical health because of the following:

  1. Religion provides social support.
  2. Religion supports healthy lifestyles.
  3. Religion promotes personality integration.
  4. Religion promotes generativity and altruism.
  5. Religion provides unique coping strategies.
  6. Religion provides a sense of meaning and purpose.                                                                              ~Compton & Hoffman, Positive Psychology, pg. 233

In addition they note, “Religion can provide hope, offer reasons for unexpected and unwanted stressors, help people place their lives in a larger framework, and create renewed purpose and meaning.” (pg. 233)

I guess I never thought of my religion or spirituality in terms of my well-being, but this morning I understand it. I feel hopeful and grateful.

I am also smiling…my mom and grandma would LOVE that I have become a church lady. :o)


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#187. Bought a Streetwise from a gentleman in the neighborhood.

#186. Cleaned up bathroom (picked up paper towels, wiped down counter) at movie theater bathroom.

#185. My friend, Kim, and I helped turned over a pot that had flipped over on Central Street.
#184. Dropped off goodie bags at the 24th police district
#183. Helped a lady get a straw wrapper off her shoe.
#182.Kite mission (left a kite and kindness note in a bike basket).
#181. Kite mission (left a kite and kindness note at a newspaper stand).
#180. Spread bubble joy at park (left a bubble wand with a kindness note at the park).
#179. Spread bubble joy at park (left a bubble wand with a kindness note at the park).

 

*AMDG means “For the Greater Glory of God” and was one of my mom’s favorite expressions.

back to school

rodney-back-to-school-cameo1
google images

Just like Rodney Dangerfield, I’m going BACK TO SCHOOL!

Starting tomorrow, I will log into my online class at the University of Missouri at Columbia (“Mizzou”) and start a two-year graduate certificate program in Positive Psychology. Founded by Martin Seligman, this is a relatively new field of psychology, although it draws upon theories and research from many of the great psychologists and philosophers throughout history. I am hopeful that this certificate will allow me to take the skills I have built in my college counseling work and branch out into other areas, such as life coaching and curriculum writing for the various kindness projects in which I am involved.

As I have learned through recent losses and the subsequent complicated grief I have experienced as a result, helping others really does make you feel better. I don’t mean to oversimplify here, but in my experience, it is completely true.

While I have always been drawn to helping others, the life-changing shift that took place after my step-father’s suicide, especially since my brother died the same way, completely altered the way I look at my own life as well as the lives of others. From the moment I learned he was missing, I started looking at him, his life, where he could be, and what he could be feeling through a different lens. I call it “the suffering lens.” It’s when I try to step into a person’s shoes and really feel what they might be experiencing, their pain. I know, I know…it all sounds strange and “out there”, but it’s what I do and how I see the world.

And, because I started to see the world with a “suffering lens” I became even more motivated to help others, which is why my work with the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) became (and still is) so rewarding. I am actively helping, searching and fundraising for a cause that is going directly to suicide prevention efforts.

But my work with the AFSP did not prevent another loss in my own family…my sweet nephew, Patrick. When he died, my brain and heart literally could not process the magnitude of losing him, of losing another family member to suicide. It’s just too big. Too much. I’m still struggling daily with this loss and I’m “only” the aunt. I know my grief is secondary to his parents and others…I also know and respect that we all grieve differently.

My response to my grief last summer was to start performing acts of kindness in Patrick’s or “Noochie’s” name. I called them NoochieRAKs. Now that I reflect upon it, I think it was a defense mechanism – like denial or avoidance of the truth. But, it was positive and creative and it was helping others. I was completely overwhelmed and honored by how many other people participated in acts of kindness in his name. It gave me hope.

Now, as we approach the one year anniversary of his death, the feelings of sadness, despair and sorrow are slowly seeping in. I will let those feelings flow because NoochieRAKs and time have softened those sharp edges of grief…

NoochieRAKs also led me to the study of Positive Psychology and this certificate program. Last night when I started the required reading, I came across one of the reasons Martin Seligman decided to pursue this field. He wanted to research “the offbeat idea of a psychology about what makes life worth living.” (Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman, 2011)

I wept. Life IS worth living.

martin seligman what makes life worth living


The #365ActsofKindness Weekly RAK-Up:

#146. Wrote thank you notes for school project.

#145. Ding dong drop-off dog treats. (Put together a belated “welcome puppy” basket for a friend’s new dog, will deliver this week!)

#144. Wrote thank you notes to some helpful friends.
#143. Returned a random shopping cart, which had rolled into a parked car in the parking lot to Home Goods.
#142. Gave a few new pets a new home through adoption.
#141. Wrote TWNMLL (The World Needs More Love Letters) letters.

A Sweet (Pea) Memory on this Earth Day…

Last month I shared the story of The Money Tree.

I wrote the story in response to a prompt, which I received from my writing instructor: Describe a special occasion.

I chose to focus on this particular occasion in honor of my nephew’s birthday last month and because it is one of my favorite memories of him.

What I didn’t share in that first piece is what happened after the big reveal…

So…here’s Part II: When the Money Tree Became the Giving Tree:

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The following day…I called the house to see if Patrick was enjoying his gift. As it turned out, he started to have second thoughts about the whole magical seeds story. The more he thought about it, the more the story just didn’t add up. Of course, it was just before his bedtime when he started envisioning a totally different version of the story…he thought it was more likely that someone broke into the house and swapped out the magic seeds pot with the money tree pot while we were all out at the Pinewood Derby. His mind went into overdrive as he conjured up a whole different cast of characters who may have come into his house to make the exchange…Was it the ancient Chinese man from the shop? Was it a leprechaun with a modified version of a pot of gold? Was it a troll? Was it just some crazy person (uh yeah, ahem, no comment) who made the swap? And…what if he/she returns to the house to collect the money tree?

He was so worried that someone was going to come in the middle of the night to collect the tree at he barely slept that night, which meant neither of his parents slept that night. I asked to speak with him and dug myself into a deeper hole explaining that he had nothing to worry about…this is how magic works and that no one broke into or would come to the house. When that didn’t seem to work, I distracted him by asking what he was going to buy with the cash…luckily, he had a list of items that took his mind off the original topic. I went with it…and then I made a note to myself to stay away from abstract gifts for my nephew in the future.

The following month…I was in the Target parking lot and popped open the trunk to load some basic necessities and a boatload of throw pillows and picture frames that I just had to have. As I organized the plastic bags, I noticed something green underneath a towel. Nervous that I had mold growing in the trunk, I very slowly lifted the towel. There, sitting on top of some old newspaper, was the original “magic seed” pot that I had painted and decorated with Patrick’s name.

FullSizeRender (12)Without any light or water, the sweet pea seeds that Patrick had sown with tender loving care and just a bit of water had started to sprout. In fact, they were not only sprouting, they were thriving, green leaves spilling out over the sides of the pot.

They were truly magical seeds.

Today, in honor of Earth Day and my Sweet P, Noochie, I will plant some Sweet Pea seeds today with my children and their friends. I will also tell them the sweet story of how the Money Tree became the Giving Tree. And, how I received the best gift.

Welcome to the Crew

 

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compassionkindness.com

 

I walked into the church a little early. There was already a decent crowd gathering in the vestibule and starting to fill in the pews. The altar servers, deacon and priests were all busy prepping for the mass.

Holy Thursday Mass.

…probably one of the most important, complex and profound days of celebration in the Catholic Church. Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Eucharist as the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and the institution of the sacrament of priesthood.” ~Catholic News Agency

I was really, really nervous.

Oh, come on…what is wrong with you? All you have to do is say “Body of Christ” and carefully place the consecrated host into the people’s hands or mouths. It’s not that difficult for cryin’ out loud!

My inner pep-talks usually sound something like this. I don’t have a ton of patience with myself. If I was talking with one of my kids, friends or students, I’d be a little gentler and cheerful with my delivery, “You can do this! You’ve got this!” However, I didn’t have time to be patient, I needed to figure out my post. I sat in the first pew and a few of the regular Eucharistic ministers arrived shortly after me and were more than willing to show me the ropes.Thanks to them, I began to feel a lot less nervous.

When the coordinator originally asked me if I could make it to this mass, she also asked if I would like my feet washed. Seeing as though it’s been WAY too long since my last pedicure and my feet are really ticklish, I politely declined.

As it turned out, the washing of the feet was one of the most moving moments of the mass.

Because I had VIP/front pew seating, I was able to see exactly what goes on during this part of the mass, which I just cannot see from my usual spot in the back row. The priest poured water over the person’s foot, wrapped a towel around his/her foot to dry it off, and then he gently kissed the person’s foot. To see the priest kneel before twelve men, women and one child and perform this act of gentle loving kindness and service to others, was powerful and humbling.

When it was time for communion, I was sent to the side of the church to serve the parishioners. Unless you have done this before, it is really difficult to explain how sacred and special this moment is with another human being. I think that’s why I was so nervous…I take this role very seriously.

After we finished there, we worked our way back to the center of the church to assist the priests. My “mentor” told me where to stand and I waited. I didn’t get too many people lining up and I figured it was because they knew I was a “newbie”.

And then a veteran walked up to me.

After he responded, “Amen”, he smiled and said with a twinkle in his eye, “Welcome to the crew”. He caught me by such surprise that I giggled and gushed “thank you”. I only hope my extreme gratitude didn’t come off as inauthentic. I was truly grateful. I felt so proud to be welcomed to his crew.

Right after the veteran, a middle school student walked up to me, smiled and placed her cupped hands towards me. This smile. It’s exactly the same sweet and genuine smile she had for me over five years ago shortly after we arrived in this town. I had met this girl and her family at an Irish dance class and we would hang out weekly in the crowded Sportsplex. I’ll never forget walking down the hallway of my oldest daughter’s school, feeling nervous in the unfamiliar setting. I was trying to figure out where the cafeteria was located, when I heard a little voice call out, “Hi, Mrs. Riggs!”. There was this adorable blond-haired, blue-eyed girl standing in line with the rest of her class. She didn’t know that I was nervous that day or that it was so nice to finally be recognized in a school hallway…just like my days as a high school counselor or at my children’s former school. Her simple gesture meant more to me than a third grader could possibly even know. Her teacher put her finger to her mouth to signal “quiet”, but she still smiled. I haven’t seen her in years as she left the school a while ago, but we still recognized each other and I gave her arm a little squeeze. I’ll never forget her simple, yet moving gesture.

Shortly after her, one of the fifth graders from the school walked up to me. This boy has the most piercing blue eyes; he smiled in recognition and I smiled back and served the host to him. Just a few weeks ago, I had interviewed him for a school project. I asked him, “What advice would you give a 4th grader?” He responded, “FAIL means First Attempt In Learning”. Maybe his parents have drilled this saying into his head over the years or maybe he heard it from one of his coaches. In any case, now that he shared that advice with me, I can take it myself and pass it along to my own children. He’ll never know his impact on me either. 

Ever since I was very young, I’ve held onto the belief that people come into our lives for a reason and that it’s up to me to find that reason. The words spoken by the veteran, “Welcome to the crew” and that both of those children just happened to be in my line for communion during my first official time as Eucharistic minister, just couldn’t be a coincidence, could it?

At the end of the mass, we were asked to remain silent as it is a time of intense and solemn reflection. We enter into another’s suffering with the knowledge that there is light at the end of the darkness.

It was easy for me to “go there” – that is, to feel the suffering, especially that night as it was Noochie’s birthday and the first one we celebrated without him. It was a hard day for so many, especially his parents. I also missed my mom, who was a Eucharistic minister for years. She loved serving the sick and homebound…she would have been so proud of me.

I also think it is easier for me to enter into others’ suffering because I am constantly aware that I am surrounded by such bright lights. I know I am lucky. What a crew!

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#85. A young woman was nervously going through her purse in one of the self-checkout lanes at Target when I walked up. It turned out she short 10 cents on her transaction. When I gave the dime to her, she thanked me over and over again. :o)

#84. Wrote three letters for TWNMLL | The World Needs More Love Letters.
#83. Surprised a former teacher with Starbucks gift card when we saw her in line at the grocery store.

#82. Gave a gift card to a Stop and Shop employee at Starbucks.

#81. Helped a student with his service application essay.
#80. Let a woman who was in a hurry go ahead of me in line at Barnes & Noble.